One of the first impressions of many who have so far parsed the American League’s All-Star roster is that this is a rather uninspiring year for junior circuit shortstops. The starter, the Orioles’ J.J. Hardy, is hitting .251. The backup, the Tigers’ Jhonny Peralta, has seven home runs. Nothing against those fine players, but this will be just the third season since 1984 in which the AL’s starting shortstop is named something other than Ripken, Rodriguez, Garciaparra or Jeter, and it’s quite clear that neither Hardy or Peralta represents the heir to any of them.
The man who very likely will become the next great AL shortstop – the man who is likely the AL’s best shortstop at this very moment – will be on the field at some point next week in Queens, just thirty feet or so to the right of Hardy or Peralta. He is Manny Machado, the 20-year-old Oriole who just about a year ago, at his organization’s request, started taking groundballs at third base four days a week before the gates opened in Double-A, so no one would know what he was up to, then was promoted to play the position last Aug. 9, and hasn’t looked back.
Much of the focus on Machado this year has involved his precocious offense – he’s tenth in the AL in batting average (.312), and is on pace to hit 71 doubles, which would break Earl Webb’s 82-year-old record – but perhaps even more quietly impressive has been his defense, at a position at which he is still a relative neophyte. He makes the routine plays just fine: his fielding percentage of .978 ranks him fifth among third basemen, and his six errors are easily the fewest among any of the four in the All-Star Game. But it is his ability to commit few mistakes while also consistently pulling off the spectacular play that makes him stand out, and that makes the basis of his value far greater than just what he does with a bat in his hands.
According to FanGraphs.com’s Ultimate Zone Rating statistic, Machado is not only the best defensive third baseman in the game by a mile, but the best defensive player in the game, period.
For exceedingly recent visual proof of Machado’s ability at the hot corner, I invite you to check out this play he made against the Yankees’ Luis Cruz on Sunday afternoon, which is probably the best play I’ve seen by an infielder all year:
If you are wondering why many of the advanced stats, like Wins Above Replacement, have Machado up with Miguel Cabrera as the American League’s best player (they are tied at 4.9): Impact plays like that, consistently executed, are why. All of this is to say that Peralta and Hardy should enjoy their day as the AL’s All-Star shortstops, just as Hardy should enjoy his dwindling time as the starting shortstop for the Orioles – though it should be noted that he has another year left on his contract. Once Machado moves back to his natural position, which could happen next year and certainly by 2015, that All-Star spot will be locked down, and might stay that way for the next decade or more.